and a shared system of values. Lululemon founder Chip Wilson infused
his company with ideas about personal fulfillment that were drawn directly from Landmark, the controversial, cultlike self-help organization.
“We have this deep-seated need to be a part of something bigger,” says Jonathan Mildenhall, the former chief marketing officer of
Airbnb, who helped build its following of travelers into home-sharing
zealots. (He’s now cofounder and CEO of the consultancy TwentyFirst-CenturyBrand.) “When we were cavemen, we didn’t sit around the
fire looking for happiness. We were looking for belonging.” In the age
of social media, with loneliness on the rise, companies are increasingly—and more deliberately—tapping into our troglodytic psyches
to inspire loyalty and evangelical-like enthusiasm for their products.
But exploiting consumers’ emotions can be a risky business.
“People didn’t come to SoulCycle because they got fit. It was
[for] the connection they got in the room,” says Julie Rice, who helped
found the company in 2006 and sold her stake to Equinox a decade
later. (She is no longer part of the management team for SoulCycle,
which declined to comment for this story.) She and cofounder Elizabeth Cutler understood from the start that they were selling not just
spin classes but spiritual bliss. They dimmed their workout rooms
and filled them with candles; instructors spoke of enlightenment,
transcendence, higher purpose. During one class, a trainer eulogized
his father-in-law, bringing riders to tears as they spun. Many instructors become deeply and emotionally involved with riders, giving them
advice and guidance on their lives outside of class.
“People will go to their SoulCycle instructors for questions
that they used to go to their pastors for, like, ‘Should I divorce my
husband?’” says Casper ter Kuile, a Ministry Innovation Fellow at
Harvard Divinity School. He coauthored a 2015 report titled How We
Gather, which looked at how brands like SoulCycle and CrossFit have
replaced the role of traditional religious institutions, particularly
among younger people who feel isolated in their digital lives. A recent
study by the research firm YouGov found that one in five millennials believes they have “no friends.” A new report published by the
American Psychological Association showed that depression in 18-to-
21-year-olds has climbed more than 46% between 2009 and 2017.
Over the past decade, as Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter have
gained followers, churches, synagogues, and mosques have been
losing them. Attendance at regular religious services in America is
at an all-time low. But religious alienation, it turns out, can be good
for business. Ter Kuile’s study describes how SoulCycle has thrived
by focusing on transforming customers’ bodies and minds, and en-
couraging them to express their brand allegiance through clothing,
playlists, and more. The result is “a cultlike loyalty . . . which illus-
trates both the depth of participant commitment and the hope for
these organizations to fulfill brand promises, like ‘find your soul.’ ”
Such lofty promises are increasingly common. “Our mission is
to elevate the world’s consciousness,” the coworking giant We Work
declared at the start of its S- 1 filing in August. Airbnb cofounder and
CEO Brian Chesky marked his company’s 10th anniversary in January
2018 with a blog post that laid out his corporate mission: To create “a
world where every one of us can belong anywhere. . . . Where every
city is a village, every block a community, and every kitchen table a
conversation. In this world, we can be anything we want.”
In the real world, Airbnb has embraced a quasi-religious approach
to brand building. From 2012 to 2017, its global head of community was
Douglas Atkin, who wrote the 2004 book The Culting of Brands: Turn
Your Customers Into True Believers. In it, Atkin explored what businesses
can learn from organizations such as the Unification Church and Hare
Krishna. He cited, for example, the Unification Church’s technique of
hooking in newcomers by “love bombing” them, or making them feel
enveloped by love. Airbnb deploys a version of this tactic by encourag-
ing hosts to leave handwritten notes and cookies for guests.
The company has also excelled at creating a value system—centered
on a belief that its guests are innately superior to other travelers—for
people to rally around, sometimes literally. For several years, Airbnb
has invited hosts from across the world to gather in different cities
and celebrate the brand. “For hosts, it was like coming to Mecca,”
says Mildenhall, who helped orchestrate the
tent-revival-like events when he was CMO.
That fervor creates an us-against-the-world
mentality, which the company can redirect
toward regulators. After San Diego passed an
ordinance last year prohibiting short-term
rentals on second homes, Airbnb helped
galvanize home-sharing fanatics to collect
62,000 signatures for a petition to rescind it. City lawmakers withdre w
the ban. “Local hierarchies, massive traditions, doctrine, an arsenal of
stories—you can weaponize a superbrand,” says Mildenhall.
But just as believers can build a brand, they can tear it apart. “They
go from being brand lovers to brand terrorists,” observes Atkin, who
is now retired and living in Tuscany. “Cults often die when there is a
betrayal. And the betrayal happens because the leader or someone
close to the leader does something totally opposite to the mission or
the belief system of that organization.” SoulCycle’s predicament is a
warning to other brands.
Shortly after the boycotts began in August, SoulCycle responded
by offering more of its “community rides.” For each of these free
classes, the company donates what it would have received from
a sold-out one to the instructor’s charity of choice. The brand has
been touting these rides in an effort to win back disillusioned riders.
On a September evening, about a month after the scandal broke,
I pay $40 for a class at a SoulCycle in midtown Manhattan. Over
thumping music, I try to make out my young instructor’s words of
encouragement. “You don’t have to be perfect,” she says, and adds
something about expectations—though I’m not sure if I’m supposed
to lower or raise them. Afterward, one rider cheerily tells me how
many friends she’s made through SoulCycle. I look around the room.
It’s 5: 30 p.m. on a Thursday. There are about 10 other riders in a space
designed to cram 60. Maybe most people aren’t off work yet. Or maybe
this is what it looks like when a cult begins to die.
JUST AS BELIEVERS CAN BUILD A BRAND,
THEY CAN TEAR IT APART.
Big Idea N